School dress code is the flavor of the month [Editorial]

Battle Cries or Bonding Ties?

School attire seems to be the flavor of the month

By Teresa A. Martin

You'd think the most important topic in education these days is yoga pants.

At least it is if you're in Myrtle Beach. This week that city's school took a stand on education that seems to reflect the trend of the month - utter obsession over clothes.

When 30 girls (out of the 800 in the school) showed up in yoga pants, school officials sequestered them in a separate room, thus raising the question - are yoga pant contagious? The girls had the choice of spending the day in the special yoga pants room or requesting a change of clothes from home.

Which leads one to wonder how girl-cut yoga pants worn by high school girls might be viewed over in Suffolk, Virginia, about 20 miles outside Norfolk. Given that district's story of the week, the girls should get a round of applause for their gender enhancing apparel.

Suffolk's school district has been busy addressing what must be a rabid cross-dressing epidemic - at least judging from its proposal that would ban students from wearing clothing that is "not in keeping with a student's gender."

Uh, what exactly is "in keeping with a student's gender?" Does that mean boys with tutus get tut-tuts? And girls in flannel shirts get sent home to dress prettier and dab on a bit of lipstick?

And you thought your school dress code was strict.According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1999-2000 school year, 12 percent of principals said their schools required a uniform. By 2007-2008, that percentage had risen to 18 percent. In addition, 55 percent of public school principals reported that their schools mandated a strict dress code.

I went to an elementary school with a uniform and loved, for once, actually looking like the other kids. My child went to preschool with a uniform and loved it because it made school feel special and a place to "work".  A friend of a friend in Pennsylvania confesses to a sense of utter relief when a recently enacted standard uniform removed the morning ritual of "you're not wearing that to school" with her teens. Students at Wixon Academy in the D-Y district have been lobbying for uniforms because they think it reflects the pride they feel about their program.

For an awful lot of people, clothing seems to couple tightly with learning -- even if research is, at best, inconclusive about any relationship between learning and fashion.

But research be darned! Here's what you'll hear over and over again as fact: Remove the school day's focus on tween and teen fashionistas and you'll remove conflict, bullying, and "distraction."  Remove the social stigma of wearing one's economic status on one's back and you'll remove inequality in treatment. Remove gang-associated colors and you'll remove violence. Remove short skirts, exposed butt-cracks, bare shoulders, and mid-riffs and delete the damaging flip-flops and you'll convert apathy and indifference to a sense of mission and purpose.

To be fair, as goofy yoga pants and skirts on boys might be as a theme for educational excellence, a great many people firmly believe that clothes make the man, err, the student.  It's a variant on that beloved old chestnut Dress for Success.

Let's take a brief swing through the news about school clothes in the past few weeks. Everyone seems to be drinking the same Kool Aid: whatever your clothing bug-a-boo, get it out of the school and things will be better.

Out in Tulsa, OK, the school board voted earlier this month to adopt school uniforms.  The district's superintendent told a local radio station, "Tulsa Public Schools high school educators believe that student uniforms offer the opportunity to enhance positive student interaction and diminish the importance of attire that often negatively affects teen behavior. A uniform requirement also removes distractions."

Earlier this week Athens, GA said it was solving its concerns over student performance and "middle school bickering" by requiring its East Jackson Middle School students to adopt a uniform of khaki or navy pants, shorts or skirts and a red, white, or blue plain collared shirt. In a phone survey, 63 percent of surveyed parents said they'd prefer students to wear uniforms.

The La Junta, CO, School Board announced a public forum for the entire community to discuss the hot topic of requiring school uniforms.

The Board of Education in New London, CT, voted unanimously to consider expanding its dress code and uniform policy to its high school. Elementary and middle school students already wear uniforms.

And, entering in the clever phraseology category, there's Salisbury, MD. Its Wicomico County School Board says 11 elementary schools and Wicomico High have expressed interest in the "Consistent Attire Program." Translation - uniforms without using the loaded term "uniform."

After the dust has settled (like it has in Flagler County, FL, better known as Daytona Beach - where a new dress code has been transitioning in this month) most kids actually seem to like uniforms.

Unlike item-banning dress codes (see those aforementioned yoga pants and cross-dressing items), uniforms present a clear closet message: this is what you wear.

The uniform might not improve student academic performance, but it seems to serve as a bonding cry. As military organizations have known forever, there's nothing like a uniform to show the line between "us" and "them" and assimilating individuals into the greater "us."

But that's not always a bad thing. School video "channel" SchoolTube shows hundreds of presentations in happy favor and - dare we say it - pride in school uniforms.  The Huffington Post had bit of fun featuring one of these - Dress Code Swag, a rap video by high schoolers in Texas rhyming away to create an ode to "khakis on the bottom" and "polos on top."

So click on that music video link. Rap along. And wonder to yourself if others around the world - from Japan to Britain to emerging countries in Africa are onto something useful, something beyond foolishness over yoga pants, something that translates khakis and polos into a cultural statement about the value and serious intent of the formal schooling process.

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